The next generation of consoles is very nearly here, and it feels like EA is perhaps saving its major innovations in its sports franchises for them. Or at least I hope it is.
Like Madden 21 before it, in terms of modes and features, FIFA 21 has very little new to offer. Instead, EA has concentrated on improving the core of the game this year, and it’s great to say that its efforts have paid off. This is hands-down the best-playing FIFA yet.
Playing on Xbox One X for review, thrown into a match upon first booting the game up, it was instantly clear that gameplay had been made a little more snappier. Players are more responsive, and the pace of the game has been increased to make it feel more energetic. There are improvements to AI, too. Players will generally be more mindful of their positions, and they make fewer stupid plays as I often noticed in FIFA 20. All in all, it gives the game a more natural flow and makes it more of a joy to both play and watch.
Additional improvements during play include a new agile dribbling system and the ability to direct your teammates when on the attack. With a simple flick of the right stick, for example, you can determine where a teammate makes their run after a pass. Additionally, you can also lock to your current player by pressing in both analogue sticks, allowing you to set up elaborate plays with the AI. All of these new features help you to more effectively break down the defence of the opposing team, and with goalkeepers being a little easier to get the ball past, it’s rare for games to end scoreless.
The beautiful game has perhaps never been more beautiful, then, but in what modes can you enjoy this refreshed gameplay? Well, everything from FIFA 20 returns and nothing more, although there are some tweaks along the way. VOLTA, for instance, has a new story mode for you to make your way through, which also serves as an introduction for those who skipped over its introduction in FIFA 20. A new Featured Battles mode within VOLTA also allows players to take part in varied matches against the AI, earning points which will ultimately allow them to unlock rewards and recruit star players. The higher the difficulty selected, the more points are earned upon success.
Co-op play is also new to VOLTA, with players able to squad up with their friends via the reimagined VOLTA HUB. Along with six new pitches to play on and more customisation options for your players, VOLTA is much more attractive this time around, whether playing alone or with friends.
Another mode that has been on the receiving end of some noteworthy updates is Career. If the ability to change your player’s position as their skills develop doesn’t make you perk up a little, how about the ability to sim matches? That’s right, you don’t have to watch or play matches if you don’t like, you can sim them entirely or jump in when you think your direct control can make a difference. Other improvements include a new sharpness attribute for players, making it more important for you to vary your line-up, and new transfer options including Loan to Buy offers. Overall, there’s nothing truly transformative, but there’s enough to make a genuine difference to the experience.
Surprisingly, the mode with the least changes this year is Ultimate Team. Club management has been streamlined somewhat, allowing you to spend more time on the pitch actually playing. What will probably be of more interest to most, however, is the ability to play in co-op. Whether it’s taking on other duos or teaming up to take on the AI, playing with a friend is always a welcome experience. Even better, you’re rewarded for your efforts, too, thanks to goodies being doled out for meeting special co-op objectives.
On the pitch then, FIFA 21 has undergone various improvements that simply make it more fun to play, as well as give it a more authentic feel. I daresay it even looks a tiny bit nicer than last year’s already brilliant-looking offering. Off the pitch, it’s undoubtedly the most social FIFA yet, with more options to play with and against friends in both VOLTA and Ultimate Team. Throw in some small but meaningful additions to Career, and you have a game that appears to be a rehash of last year’s title on the surface, but is actually so much more. Even better, dual entitlement means that those picking the game up on PS4 or Xbox One will be able to upgrade to the next-gen version on the respective format should they be lucky enough to pick a new console up.
So, FIFA 21 doesn’t have any ground-breaking new modes or revolutionary gameplay innovations, but it doesn’t need them to impress. The plentiful tweaks to gameplay and AI, along with worthwhile new features spread across all primary modes, accumulate to make FIFA 21 a must-have for football fans. And if they’re planning on picking up a next-gen console in the near-future, there’s possibly even more for them to look forward to.